It’s a pertinent question, one often dictated by accountants rather than the wine. When Tim James and I get together to taste the latest batch of wines kindly sent to us by the producers, the majority in the line-up – being new or newish releases – are generally young. Most are quite ready for drinking and that’s the way they were intended. For instance, of the six 2015 sauvignon blancs we tasted, Bon Courage Gooseberry Bush (R50) and Van Loveren (R50 ex-cellar) were styled for immediate and easy drinking. Both have a suggestion of sweetness and enough varietal character without being overly aggressive to satisfy their intended audience. No surprises, no excitement but also no problem assessing those two.
The danger with sauvignon blanc is that it’s seen as a cash cow, meaning there are some released too early, before they’ve had time to settle; judging how these will evolve is a more demanding task. We felt both Fryer’s Cove sauvignons – Doring Bay (±R75/80) and, more especially, Bamboes Bay (±R120/130) – would have benefitted from holding back a while. The former, a bit reduced, has good energy with a ripe, tingling fruitily fresh finish. Bamboes Bay is very quiet at this stage – just a hint of tropical ripeness with an interesting saline edge (the vineyards are almost on the beach). The price difference is nicely articulated in each but I’d leave each for a few months to shed that youthful gawkiness. Dombeya Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (R70 ex farm) comes from the expert hands of Riane Strydom. It has a smoky, flinty character, lipsmacking juiciness and bone dry yet long finish. Lovely, but again a little too raw, something a few extra months would have polished.
Unwooded sauvignons are one animal, wooded ones another and generally need the extra time to pull together. We felt this about André Rousseau’s Sacharia Wooded Sauvignon 2015 (R190). Rousseau was formerly winemaker at Constantia Uitsig, where he did much to raise the quality of the wines, actually picking up two Platter Five Star awards in the 2016 edition for his Semillon and Natura Vista (sauvignon/semillon blend) 2014s. After departing under somewhat unhappy circumstances, he’s now got his own label and also does viticultural consulting work. No doubt this early release is driven by financial constraints, a pity but understandable. The fruit, from Constantia Uitsig, was fermented and aged in older 600 litre barrels, even so, there’s still the suggestion of oak sweetness. A quieter, unaggressive style with the richness lees-ageing imparts, another six months may see the improvement concomittant with such a price tag.
Chardonnay suffers from the same early-release problem, especially now they are being made in a tighter, fresher style with oak a support rather than centre stage. The top 10 chardonnays at the recent Prescient Chardonnay awards fitted this aesthetic and are the antithesis of the oaky, oily versions which, mercifully, are rarely found today. But tucked within their vibrant frames are flavours and textures yet to be unleashed. These embryonic wines – all from 2014 or 2013 – are not so easy to judge.
These awards, previously known as Christian Eedes Chardonnay Report, are however made from a hand-picked 60 entries with track records, and judged, as always by Eedes with colleagues, Roland Peens and James Pietersen of Wine Cellar. Such methodology likely makes the results less of a lottery; indeed there were few surprises among the 29 scoring over 90/100 (more surprising were some at the bottom end of the list – Lismore just 85/100 – really?) and the 10 poured at the awards were all of a high quality; Paul Cluver 7 Flags 2014 and Eikendal 2014 my favourites.
It used to be common cause reds need longer before release; today, not in all cases. Neethlingshof’s 2014 Pinotage (R80 ex the Bergkelder vinoteque), an Absa Top Ten selection, is fruitily tasty now. In a difficult vintage, De Wet Viljoen has cajoled enticing cherry fragrance & flavours in a lively frame with plenty of freshness and ripe tannins. I really don’t see it getting any better with keeping.
Even wines structured to age can be enjoyable young. I always remember Paul Pontallier’s mantra: for a wine to taste good when it’s old, it should taste good when it’s young. The latest Delheim Grand Reserve 2013 (R285), the first since 2008, is 100% cabernet. The change in size and age of oak – larger and less new – a gentler hand with acid, ripe grape tannins, all combine in making this flagship a better balanced wine and readily enjoyable now, but also with plenty more years in store. As winemaker, Reg Holder, confirmed; ‘It’s got to be drinkable on release, when most bottles will be consumed.’
If three years is an average release date for reds, some are kept back for a further two; Meerlust Rubicon 2010 (R333 ex-farm) and Glen Carlou Gravel Quarry Cabernet 2010 (R375 ex-farm for 2009) come to mind. Both are splendid wines, Rubicon a Platter 5*, Glen Carlou 4.5*, with longer lives ahead. Sadly, the Glen Carlou didn’t crack a Platter five star but I think both stood a better chance at five years than three, due to their formidable structure.
For those who are quick to criticise how a young white or red wine is rated, on its release, on shows or in Platter, just bear in mind the winemaker’s intention, as well as the accountant’s!